Walking on the Wadden Sea (Waddenzee)

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It was remarkably crowded at the Holwerd pier last Sunday the 15th. Over a hundred and fifty people had gathered to participate in the popular Dutch mudflat hiking. Called ‘wadlooptocht’, this recreation is a walk from Holwerd to Ameland, wading in the waters of the mudflats of the Wadden Sea. Mudflat hiking is a unique activity that only can be experienced in a few parts of the world.

After dividing a large group into two smaller groups of around seventy people,  experienced mudflat hikers Jan Udding, Rogier Hilbrandie  and Harm Smeenge of Dijkstra Wadlooptochten led the groups in a brisk pace. Reaching the actual mudflat was the first challenge. The first 200 meters of grass and mud were so soggy that, although we had been warned, some in the group still lost their balance and slipped. Mudflat hiking is quite a challange. The eleven-kilometer hike takes around three hours through heavy and deep mudflats and gullies with water that can reach till one’s waist. For this type of expedition the tour organizers require participants to be well-trained and prepared with enough clothing, food and proper shoes. “As long as you keep walking, nothing can go wrong,” Rogier said.

Hiking the first few kilometers felt like moving on barefoot. Sinking in the mud, sometimes up to one’s knees, and feeling the water seep into one’s shoes gave one a soft and naked feeling. “Yikes! That water feels really cold,” shouted a female participant. “In fact, the water is quite bearable at the moment,” replied Harm. He explained that September was the best period to join a mudflat expedition, because the water was relatively warm at the end of the summer. Also, the outside temperature could still be quite pleasant in this month. These two factors make the best condition for mudflat hiking. During the ‘breathing’ breaks, Harm educated the group about the unique Wadden Sea area. The currents in the seawater and tidal influences are continually changing the landscape. The environment consists of sandbanks, gullies and mudflats. Because of this high variation, the Wadden Sea is a unique habitat for many rare plants and animals that can deal with this extreme, but very productive environment. Furthermore, it’s an essential stop for millions of birds during their journey. “Birds from the North come to

feed themselves in the Wadden Sea before they continue their journey to Southern Europe and Africa', he said. The Wadden Sea has been an acknowledged World Heritage site since 2009.

As we moved  along, the mudflats gradually changed into sandbanks with a few deep gullies. Some participants put their backpacks on their heads to keep them safe from the water while moving through the gullies. Aside from the Frisian, Dutch and a few German participants, there were two quite unexpected participants from the United States. Expat James from Groningen and his visiting brother Patrick walked together with a Dutch friend Jasper, whom James met in the University of Groningen. These guys found the expedition fun and unique. “The stories about the area made this experience more interesting, apart from the fun we had during the walk,” said James. After arriving at Ameland, the participants could either walk to the boat, which would return them to the pier in Holwerd, or take a short trip on the beach by tractor, for a small fee, and walk the last three kilometers to the boat. The first option consisted of a walk of another ten kilometers and was designed for the real die-hards. In our case, the majority took the tractor after a quick wash in the Northern Sea to get rid of the mud.

Dijkstra Wadlooptochten organizes several expeditions on and around the Wadden area for any kind of participant. The website is unfortunately available only in Dutch, but for information, feel free to contact  them through Dijkstra Wadlooptochten.